Paris Hilton's cooking show is really about something else

Holly Thomas is a writer and editor based in London. She tweets @HolstaT. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author. View more opinion articles on CNN.

Paris Hilton is back on our screens. With the help of her sister Nicky, Demi Lovato, her OG BFF, Kim Kardashian-West and others, the heiress is serving an array of “dishes” inspired by her favorite foods, themes (many of which essentially translate to “wealth”) and places on her new Netflix vehicle, “Cooking With Paris.”

Holly Thomas

Critics are taking issue with Hilton as host of a show about food, but be under no illusion, this woman isn’t pretending she can cook. In fact, she’s probably pretending she can’t, but that hasn’t deterred much of the internet from scoffing at her poor culinary skills, and wondering at the point of a food show that doesn’t include knockout recipes. Let the woman sliv! (Sliving = slaying and living. Hilton apparently invented it at a Halloween party, then — she claims on the show — copyrighted it. Of course.)
    To be fair to her detractors, it’s hard to fully appreciate Hilton’s latest venture if you’re not taking a wide view of what preceded it. Her early-noughties heyday conjures memories of an orange-tinted girl in tiny skirts carrying enormous handbags, and paparazzi shots of her rolling in and out of clubs with Kim K, then dumb blonde-ing her way across middle America with Nicole Ritchie in “The Simple Life.” But Hilton’s life, even when splashed onto a reality TV screen, has been far from perfect.
      When the first season premiered in 2003, a video of Hilton and her then-boyfriend Rick Salomon having sex a few years prior was released non-consensually — when she was only 20. The public reaction to what we’d now recognize as revenge porn was one of mockery and disgust, directed not at Salomon, who was 13 years her senior and went on to distribute the video in 2004 — but at Hilton herself. She was violated, but she was accused of exploiting the leak to accelerate her growing stardom. In 2004, Hilton and Salomon reportedly settled pending lawsuits against each other out of court, per the New York Daily News.
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        Since then, Hilton has released umpteen product lines, made significant money in her own right, continued to trot out of airports around the world in velour tracksuits and colonized Instagram and TikTok as a more Gen X-friendly influencer. Then, in 2020, she released a tell-all documentary on YouTube: “This Is Paris.” The film — which features a deeper-voiced, more sober (in every sense) Hilton, delves into her tomboy childhood, and includes Hilton discussing her brutal adolescence for the first time ever — either on or off-camera.
        Troubled by their daughter’s “addiction” to the New York nightlife, her “strict,” “conservative” parents sent her away to “wilderness programs” and “emotional growth” camps as a teenager. She repeatedly ran away, and claims men at the camp “beat the hell” out of her in front of the other kids as a punishment.
          The documentary’s worst revelation is that of the time two men came to her childhood home in the night, and without warning, took her screaming from her bed as her weeping parents watched in silence. She was taken to Provo Canyon School in Utah, where she alleges she was medicated without her consent (or explanation), strangled, stripped, and thrown into solitary confinement for 20 hours at a time. She attributes her ongoing insomnia — and several physically and emotionally abusive romantic relationships, to her time there.
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          While Hilton’s mother appeared in the documentary — and Paris says their relationship is now “closer than ever” — her father prefers to stay off-camera, and hasn’t commented publicly. In a statement on its website, officials at Provo Canyon school affirmed a commitment to “providing high-quality care to youth with special, and often complex, emotional, behavioral and psychiatric needs.” They also said the institution was under different ownership prior to 2000, and “therefore cannot comment on the operations or patient experience prior to that time.”
          In February of this year, Hilton was one of three people who testified in Utah in support of Bill SB 127, which prohibits punishing children in ways “intended to frighten or humiliate.” The bill passed in March.
          Paris Hilton’s history is in some ways more complicated than that of say, Britney Spears, whose back story has also undergone a re-examination in recent months. It’s far easier to sympathize with someone like Spears, who grew up without the privilege or security of wealth and whose musical talents the public can immediately recognize and value, than with a socialite who grew up friends with the Trumps, and whose whole shtick for years was that she was already preposterously rich and stupid. In her documentary, Hilton’s old school friends recall her succinctly explaining economic theories in class, and cleaning the school buildings (in “The Simple Life,” Hilton made out that she didn’t know how to use a mop).
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            One might argue that Hilton should have brought some of that more on-the-sleeve intelligence and depth to her cooking project. Aside from a brief reference to her documentary in the Demi Lovato episode — in which she and Demi share a moment of mutual appreciation as public figures who’ve “come out” with traumatic personal histories — the show is as silly as the iridescent blue marshmallows she serves with her frosted flakes-covered French toast. But as any chef will tell you, balance is everything. It’s totally understandable that after revealing some of the most traumatic moments of her life — things she never even told her family about — Hilton switched back to her more spotlight-acclimatized avatar, essentially playing in the kitchen of her Barbie dreamhouse-esque home. And dropping a few baby-name Easter eggs can’t hurt the brand either.
            Is it calculated? Obviously. But Hilton reclaiming her lost youth and revamping her image through sprinkles and candy floss-laced cake is no more basic than Gordon Ramsey acting out his toxic masculinity by throwing things during explosive outbursts and cussing at terrified restaurant staff and cooks on shows like “Hell’s Kitchen,” “MasterChef” and “Kitchen Nightmares.” And in a world overflowing with intimidating recipes, fad diets, and chefs who take themselves even more seriously than their food, it’s refreshing to see someone so apparently superficial not give a crap about how Instagrammable or “healthy” her plates look. The takeaway message? There’s truly a Paris Hilton for every occasion.

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